by Glen Jeansonne and David Luhrssen
Even after the ascent of Ronald Reagan, entertainers who become successful politicians remain the exception rather than the expectation. There was little precedent in the era before Reagan entered politics for the dual career of Jimmie Davis, a country-western singer who sold millions of records and was twice elected governor of Louisiana. The tall, quiet-spoken entertainer spent more years in music than in politics, but with his soft drawling voice and easygoing manner, he warmed the hearts of many Louisiana voters. Like the self-effacing character he played in such Hollywood cowboy movies as Cyclone Prairie Rangers and Frontier Fury, he gave the impression that he was less concerned with personal ambition than with helping his neighbors.
His “just folks” manner was no put-on. Davis was born in a sharecropper’s family in Quitman, La. on September 11, 1899. One of 11 children, he began his education in a two-room public school and worked hard to rise above the poverty line. After graduating from Beech Springs High School in 1921, Davis enrolled in Louisiana College, a small Baptist academy in Pineville. He interrupted his education by teaching grade school to earn tuition money. After receiving a B.A. in history in 1924, he returned to the faculty of his old high school. In 1926 he entered Louisiana State University to study education and psychology, but found it necessary to drop out for a time to finance his education by working as a sharecropper. After earning his M.A. in 1927, he taught at Shreveport’s Dodd College, and became city clerk in 1929.
Marriage to Alverna Adams, fatherhood and public service did not stand in the way of music. He would later downplay some of his earlier recordings, dating from 1928 through 1933, which mixed occasional cowboy songs and hobo ballads with sexually implicit, double entendre blues. Later, he sang for five dollars a week on Shreveport’s KWKH, which became home to the Louisiana Hayride, second only to the Grand Ole Opry among country music radio shows. Davis’ eventual success as a country-western songwriter enabled him to pay off the mortgage on his farm and led to a career in movies from 1942 through 1950. Eventually he wrote or claimed authorship of more than 300 songs, including such country standards as “Nobody’s Darlin’ but Mine” and “You Are My Sunshine.”
A Phenomenal Hit Song
The origins of “You Are My Sunshine” were later embroiled in controversy. By some reports it was actually written by Paul Rice, who recorded it with his band half a year before Davis made it a million-selling hit in February 1940. In this version of the story, Davis and Charles Mitchell, who played pedal steel guitar in Davis’ band, purchased the song from Rice for $35 to help the struggling writer pay his wife’s hospital bills. The practice of purchasing authorship credit for songs was common in the music industry of those days. But even if Rice wrote the song, it might not have been an entirely original work. Country music historians found traces of “You Are My Sunshine” in earlier recordings from the 1930s, including the refrain from a Hawaiian tune, which suggests that the timeless melody and sentiments originated in folklore before being shaped by professional musicians. For his part, Davis always maintained that the song was his own.
He sensed an affinity between crowd-pleasing popular entertainment and democratic politics. In 1938 Davis won his first election as commissioner of public safety in Shreveport. As in all of his political races to come, Davis sang on the stump and refused to engage in invective. Four years later he was elected to the Louisiana Public Service Commission. Like Huey Long, his seat on the powerful regulatory body became the springboard to the governorship, but comparisons between the Kingfish and the singing cowboy end there. Worried over his lack of experience and being drawn into controversy, Davis at first shrugged off the encouragement to run given him by outgoing governor Sam Jones.
Once he decided to seek the governorship, Davis’ temperament on the campaign trail was restrained and genial; he never indulged in fiery oratory and made few promises. He pledged to retain “all constructive legislation of all past administrations” and to “do all in my power to bury the hates and distrust of the past and raise the curtain that will let in the sunshine of Louisiana’s future greatness.” Davis defeated his leading opponent, Lewis L. Morgan, by a comfortable margin, gaining 54 percent of the vote to Morgan’s 46 percent, and took office in 1944.
Actor and Governor
As governor, Davis acted as a conciliator among rival factions, appointing anti-Long conservatives to high office while extending many of Long’s social welfare programs. Restricted by law from serving consecutive terms as the state’s chief executive, he left the governor’s mansion in 1948, having amassed a surplus of $50 million in the state treasury despite increasing spending on highways, education, and health. His term was not without controversy, largely because he seldom allowed politics to interfere with show business. Davis spent much time traveling to make records and movies, including a depiction of himself in the film Louisiana. He was absent 44 days in the fiscal year 1944-45; 68 days in 1945-46; and 108 days in 1946-47.
Davis began his second gubernatorial campaign eleven years after the end of his first term. During the intervening time he had stayed out of politics, occupying himself with songwriting, recording, cattle raising, and tree farming. He reentered the fray as a folksy and genial contrast to his opponents. His major rivals in the 1959-60 election included the fiery organizer of the state’s anti-civil rights White Citizens Council, William M. Rainach; the vituperative one-time Long associate Bill Dodd; and the mayor of New Orleans, the urbane DeLesseps Story Morrison. The incumbent, Earl Long, had released himself from a mental hospital by dismissing the director of the state-run institution. Barred by law from seeking another term, he ran for lieutenant governor on a ticket headed by former governor James A. Noe. Mistaking his mild demeanor for timidity, some of his opponents hoped to push Davis from the race by subjecting him to bitter personal attack. He disappointed them by maintaining an unbreakable calm.
Davis never indulged in name calling and refrained from extravagant promises. He called instead for an end to factionalism and pledged to unite all Louisianans regardless of their political alignment. Davis asserted that the Pelican State had the resources and people to become a great state but had handcuffed its potential with internecine warfare.
While campaigning in 1959 for the first of the two Democratic Party primaries on the road to victory, Davis ignored his opponents altogether and spoke instead of his impoverished childhood and the fiscal responsibility of his previous governorship. His quiet confidence drew many to his side. Reflecting his personality, the Davis campaign was a smoothly coordinated, low-key operation. His workers were cautioned not to alienate the supporters of other candidates who might be persuaded to back Davis in the second primary. Davis’ strategy was to draw the largest number of votes from the broadest segment of the population.
Politics often took the backseat to music. Davis rallies were built around handclapping renditions of his favorite songs, especially “Your Are My Sunshine,” “Live and Let Live,” and “Peace in the Valley.”
Segregationist and Populist
Although Davis spoke of bringing the people of Louisiana together, he was no different than most Southern politicians of his day in standing against the rising tide of civil rights. Adamant in his refusal to concede states’ rights to federal authority, he said: “When the day comes that the sovereignty of states is not accepted as the law of the land, that is the day that the United States of America will cease to exist as a concept.” Davis proclaimed he was “1,000 percent” for segregation and promised “no retreat and no compromise” on the issue. As a 28-year-old graduate student at LSU, his master’s thesis was titled “Comparative Intelligence of Whites, Blacks and Mulattoes.” However, his stance lacked the viciousness of many segregationists holding high office in the South. Davis insisted that he would ensure that Louisiana’s public facilities would be “separate but equal” in fact as well as in name. “Right-thinking white people and right-thinking colored people know segregation is the best and only way of life in the South,” he explained.
While Davis maintained that Louisiana had made great progress in recent decades, he worried that the state had a long way to go in caring for the sick and underprivileged, promising “to do everything possible to help them.” He cited the establishment and expansion of more than a dozen hospitals during his 1944-48 term. He was able to identify with many Louisianans through his own life experience. Citizens who depended on public assistance were reminded of his impoverished origins; he claimed he had no bed to sleep in until he was nine years old. Policemen were asked to recall his term as public safety commissioner. His concern with education was grounded in his experience as a teacher. He pointed to his first administration, when state spending on education had increased more than 100 percent per pupil and new trade schools were opened. He pledged free hot lunches for indigent students.
The first primary saw many colorful attacks on Davis. When gubernatorial candidate Gale Berry accused him of bribing LSU All-American halfback Billy Cannon for an endorsement, Davis issued a brief denial. Otherwise, he refused to reply to any accusation against him, including the charges that he operated a whiskey still in New Hampshire and doctored photographs purporting to show him crossing the racial divide by dancing with Lena Horne.
While enduring the mud slinging with good grace, Davis picked up endorsements from many of the largest newspapers in the state, including the Times-Picayune and the Shreveport Times. The big oil companies backed Davis, believing his pledge of no new taxes. Davis appealed to a wide audience through his image as a simple and amiable man who had elevated himself by hard work. “If there ever was a time when our state needs peace and harmony, it is now,” he said, maintaining this theme throughout his campaign. His soft-spoken message found responsive listeners who had grown tired of the flamboyant eccentricity of the sitting governor, Earl Long.
The first Democratic primary, on Dec. 5, 1959, pitted Davis against ten other aspirants for the governorship. It was one of the most hotly contested races in the state’s history. As the Baton Rouge Morning Advocate editorialized: “With the crumbling of machines and realignments of factions that is taking place, the independent voter will have the chance of a lifetime to decide an election.” Morrison won first place with 33 percent of the votes and Davis ran second with 25 percent. The stage was set for the final round of elections in the following month
Winning a second gubernatorial term
Morrison’s support was concentrated largely in the urban and Roman Catholic districts of southern Louisiana, while Davis faired well not only in the Protestant north but found substantial support in most parishes. The two finalists differed in style but not significantly in their agendas. Both contenders embraced the once-radical program of social improvement implemented by Huey Long and maintained by his successors. Race became the driving issue in 1960.
Morrison had been regarded as a moderate and was supported in the first primary by many black voters. Davis had never been especially outspoken on segregation, but his campaign decided to hammer against the civil rights movement as a way to distinguish himself from Morrison and appeal to the anxiety of many white voters. Whenever possible, the Davis campaign linked Morrison’s name to integration and the NAACP. Davis had trailed Morrison by 65,405 votes in the December balloting and to win the governorship, he needed to double the vote he received in December.
Many of Davis’ opponents in the first primary came to his side. Willie Rainach and Earl Long endorsed the singer. Some of the state’s largest newspapers lined up behind him, including dailies in New Orleans and Shreveport. However, Morrison received the endorsement of James A.Noe, who condemned Davis for raising the race issue after campaigning for peace and harmony, and Bill Dodd, who praised the New Orleans mayor for his experience and moderation.
Morrison drew attention to the racy content of Davis’ earliest recordings and repeatedly challenged him to a debate. Davis refused. Morrison began placing an empty chair on his speaking platform with a sign reading, “Reserved for ex-Governor Jimmy Davis.” He added that the chair had been vacant through much of Davis’ term, with the singer spending much of his time making movies and records.
In the end, Davis forged an overwhelming coalition of Long supporters, oil interests, organized labor, and prominent politicians. Anxiety over segregation spurred an unusually high voter turnout on election day, Jan. 9, 1960, with ballots cast by nearly 81 percent of Louisiana’s registered Democrats. The result was a clean sweep for Davis and supporters, with the singer winning 487,681 votes to 414,100 for Morrison.
Davis still faced nominal opposition in the general election from Republican and States’ Rights candidates. CBS decided to cancel Davis’ scheduled performance on The Ed Sullivan Show rather than risk a demand from his opponents for equal time. The outcome of the final election was not in doubt in Louisiana’s largely one-party system of that era. In his inaugural address, Davis maintained a reassuring tone. “We have no problems that are insoluble,” he insisted.
Davis stood for segregation during his 1960-64 term and attempted to obstruct the court-ordered integration of the state’s public schools. Yet, the soft-spoke governor was determined to keep the schools open and avoid violence while challenging the federal courts on every point. Davis signed a procession of laws, not necessarily because he believed that the legislation would hold up in court but to divert the anger of his white constituency. Had he done nothing, he would likely have been impeached. Through the crisis, Davis played politics astutely and kept calm. He put it this way in a 1963 television address: “Let those who would fault us in our efforts compare them with some of our sister states who were perhaps not as fortunate.”
Davis ushered positive achievements into law, including one of America’s most comprehensive education programs for developmentally disabled children and the construction of new charity hospitals. He continued to make recordings while in office and even reached the Top 20 with “Where the Old Red River Flows.”
The music world changed dramatically after his second departure from the governor’s mansion. Davis retreated from country and concentrated instead on gospel music, performing in that genre into the 1990s, mostly in church settings. In the aftermath of his political career, the singer dedicated the non-denominational Jimmie Davis Tabernacle on the grounds of his old school in Beech Springs. After the death of his wife Alverna in 1967, he married gospel singer Anna Carter Gordon. His past accomplishments were honored by his election to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1971. In that same year he was persuaded, against his better judgment he later said, to try again for governor. He ran an indifferent campaign and placed fourth in the primary, receiving only 12 percent of the vote.
Davis enjoyed a remarkable life. He was elected to important public offices, wrote or popularized songs that became standards in country and gospel, sold millions of records and appeared in Hollywood movies. He is best remembered for “You Are My Sunshine,” which received a Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 1999 and was named as one of the “Songs of the Century” by the Recording Industry Association of America. He was not courageous in his position on desegregation but did as little harm as possible; his political legacy in Louisiana is largely positive. Davis lived to see his third century. He performed four songs at his 100th birthday party and died at home in Baton Rouge on Nov. 5, 2000.
Glen Jeansonne, Ph.D., professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, has written several books about Louisiana, including Leander Perez: Boss of the Delta (1978) and Messiah of the Masses: Huey P. Long and the Great Depression (1993).
David Luhrssen, a journalist and historian, is a music and motion picture critic. He holds an M.A. in history and is the arts and entertainment editor for a Milwaukee newspaper.
Jeansonne and Luhrssen are collaborating on a biography of Elvis Presley.